With control of the U.S. Senate up for grabs in November, Republicans may have fights on their hands in states they have long taken for granted: Kansas, for example.
The GOP has had a lock on both of the state’s Senate seats since the Great Depression. However, as they approach a Monday, June 1, filing deadline, party leaders are not confident that any of the candidates now in the field are a lock to hold onto retiring Sen. Pat Roberts’ seat.
Democrats hope that a victory in Kansas in November can help deliver them a majority in the U.S. Senate, which, if they win the White House as well, will provide a major boost to the party’s legislative priorities.
Those concerns prompted Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to intensify his efforts to convince U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to run. The former GOP congressman from Kansas has rejected those overtures, but rumors of a last-minute entry persist.
Referencing the upcoming filing deadline in a recent interview on Fox News, McConnell said, “I guess the suspense won’t last much longer.”
Mike Kuckelman, chair of the Kansas Republican Party, said he has not “heard anything” from Pompeo to indicate that the secretary of state has changed his mind.
“I think he’s been pretty clear that he’s not going to” run, Kuckelman said.
Even so, Kansas Senate President Susan Wagle’s abrupt decision Thursday to drop out of the race signaled that party leaders were working behind the scenes to thin the field in an effort to avoid a bruising primary.
In a statement announcing her decision, Wagle said she had spoken with state and national party leaders and did not want to participate in “a primary fight that will divide our party.”
The announcement came only days after an interview in which Wagle vowed to stay in the race unless Pompeo got in.
“I’ve talked to Mike,” Wagle said. “I’ve told him if he wants to get in, I’m out.”
However, based on her conversations with Pompeo, Wagle said, “I believe he’ll stay secretary of state; that’s more important.”
Several weeks ago, Kuckelman called on Wagle and Dave Lindstrom, a former player for the Kansas City Chiefs, to exit the race. Both angrily declined.
Wagle’s change of heart came on the heels of Kansans for Life, the state’s leading anti-abortion organization, endorsing 1st District Congressman Roger Marshall for the Republican nomination.
While many of the candidates in field had strong anti-abortion credentials, the organization said in its endorsement that Marshall, a retired obstetrician from western Kansas, “gives pro-lifers the best chance of defeating abortion fanatic Barbara Bollier.”
Bollier, a state senator and retired physician from the Kansas City suburb of Mission Hills, is the presumptive Democratic nominee. A former Republican, she switched parties in 2018, after concluding she was an outlier on issues ranging from abortion to Medicaid expansion.
“The party’s value system just didn’t match mine,” Bollier said during a recent tele-town hall with voters, part of what she’s calling her “virtual bus tour.”
Bollier, thanks in part to contributions flooding in from across the country, is out fundraising everyone in the Republican field. She raised more than $1 million her first month in the race and followed that up by taking in another $2.4 million in the first three months of this year.
Former Kansas Democratic Gov. Kathleen Sebelius said Bollier is the “right candidate at the right time.”
“A doctor, a no-nonsense legislator, she’s got the whole package,” said Sebelius, a former secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services during the Obama administration.
“At a time when people are looking for compassionate, competent government, I think she’s got a real shot,” Sebelius said.
That is what worries Republicans, particularly if former Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach captures their nomination.
Kobach is a polarizing figure. His populist rhetoric and reputation as an anti-immigration hardliner make him a favorite of Trump voters but alienate GOP moderates and independents.
In announcing his candidacy last July, Kobach said he was not running to be the “quiet useful tool” sought by McConnell.
“The Washington establishment is not going to get what they want if I’m elected,” he said to cheers at his announcement rally.
With backing from Trump, Kobach narrowly won the Republican nomination for governor in 2018 but lost the general election to Democrat Laura Kelly.
That loss worries many Republicans, including Marshall, Kobach’s chief rival for the Senate nomination, who asks, “Here we are in a state that President Trump won by over 20 points, how does a Kansas Republican lose a governor’s race?”
Several establishment Republicans who share those concerns have endorsed Marshall. They include Bob Dole, the former U.S. senator and presidential candidate, and former Gov. Jeff Colyer.
“You are starting to see a consolidation of people behind Roger Marshall,” Colyer said, “he is a candidate who can win.”
A recent poll conducted by the National Republican Senatorial Committee, confirms the fears of some party leaders. It shows Kobach would be a dead heat at 44% to 43% in a head-to-head matchup against Bollier with 12 percent of voters undecided, the Kansas City Star reported.
The same poll showed Marshall leading Bollier 46% to 35% with 18% undecided.
Initial polls showed Kobach leading in the race for the GOP nomination. However, the most recent survey showed Marshall with a seven-point lead.
The primary is Aug. 4.